Such was the course of the War of Wars. But in the poet’s phrase, ‘What good came of it at last?’ Napoleon, building on the French Revolution, saw himself as the great modernizer of Europe after centuries of absolutism; Britain saw herself as defending Europe from a more monstrous despotism than had ever been experienced before. Who was right? It is time to attempt to assess the significance of Napoleon’s achievements and defeat.
The wheel of history had turned full circle: in fact it may even have gone into reverse. The regime of Louis XVIII was more autocratic and reactionary than that of his more intelligent older brother, Louis XVI. It was less reformist and enlightened and was dominated by a seesaw struggle between the ultras and aristocratic moderates like the Duc de Richelieu and Decazes. Worst of all it was propped up by an army of humiliating occupation under the didactic Wellington.
It can safely be said that France after 1815 was more backward economically, probably politically and, intellectually, and certainly socially – with large numbers of former soldiers and bandits marauding around that devastated country – than it had been before the Revolution of 1789. In a quarter of a century, both the Revolution and Napoleon had succeeded in returning the country back to what it was before the whole process had begun, with a poorer economy than the one expanding sharply under Louis XVI.
Yet many subsequent historians claimed that there were much greater underlying changes, that the revolutionary and Napoleonic period precipitated a great leap forward in European history from the dynastic autocracies that had frozen the region for so long. In particular, the revolutionary period is said to have ushered in a greater thirst of ordinary people for their rights: the Napoleonic period was a middle-class revolution. Marxist historians have long held this view.
There is a truth here; but it may be that the economic changes that preceded the Revolution under Louis XVI were primarily responsible for both the emergence of a ‘proletariat’ – the Paris mob – and a bourgeoisie. As the historian Alfred Cobban has shown, the main instigators and beneficiaries of the Revolution were not the new middle classes, but minor functionaries and civil servants under the ancien régime, a class of intellectuals who felt they had not received their true deserts in life. Certainly by 1815 the Paris mob was utterly cowed and the bourgeoisie was little more politically dominant than before the Revolution, while aristocratic reactionaries were more powerful than before 1789. Equally this return to an aristocratic ice age was accompanied by economic progress and the general evolution of political thought into a continuing struggle between reactionaries and progressives.
Yet it is possible to argue that this exact process was underway in the enlightened and progressive, if politically autocratic, period before the Revolution. Who was the more enlightened – Voltaire, Robespierre or Napoleon? The process might have moved peacefully ahead in an evolutionary way and perhaps faster through gradualist reform, inevitably so if new industrial methods were imported from Britain, than through the violent upheavals of revolution and wars of conquest.
Further, France, a state at least as powerful as Britain before the industrial revolution, was crippled politically and economically for decades after 1815. It remained a largely backward agrarian country: its own industrial revolution was seriously postponed, its bourgeois economic class in its great trading cities had lost money and competitive advantage with Britain, and it had deindustrialized, if it had ever really industrialized. Possibly the same would have occurred if there had been no revolutionary or Napoleonic periods: yet given the pace of economic change in France before the Revolution, and the intellectual ferment of the period, it seems unlikely.
What is undeniable is that France was considerably worse off economically and more backward politically in 1816 than in 1788, and that the industrial revolution had been limited to military-related manufacturing, which was not particularly efficient. While Britain was undergoing a dramatic industrial revolution during this period, France in many respects fell way behind, and ceased to be a major economic and political rival to Britain until the late twentieth century.
In political terms, the stability of French institutions before 1789 was never to recover – arguably to this day, with nearly two centuries of unsatisfactory constitutional experiments succeeding each other, from an absolute monarchy to bourgeois constitutions, to a Second Empire to a bourgeois struggle with the working class represented by the Paris Commune, to the chaotic Third Republic. This was followed by an era of weak governments under the Fourth Republic and then a renewed ‘strong’ government with an unsatisfactory coexistence of president and parliament in the Fifth.
Even France’s population growth became sluggish after the Napoleonic period. The enduring legacy of the revolutionary-Napoleonic period was quite different to that intended: a massive further centralization of the French state with the elimination of traditional local legal freedoms and autonomies and an independent aristocracy and gentry. If the court of Versailles was too centralized, the court of Napoleon was virtually all-powerful, a military dictatorship. France never recovered from this: right up to modern times, it has veered between a parliamentary and an autocratic centralist system with the latter usually winning, most recently with the imposition of the Gaullist constitution after 1959.
Napoleon sought to impose the same upon the countries he conquered, sweeping away local ‘feudal’ privileges, many of them arbitrary and unsatisfactory, ancient structures of princedoms, merchant guilds and complex legal demarcations in favour of a unified Code Napoleon. This has been cited as one of his greatest and most lasting achievements. In fact the Code Napoleon was far from ideal, too inflexible to take account of local circumstances and traditions; it was also state-centred, lacking the guarantees and pluralisms that defined and defended the rights of individuals, insisting that the individual prove his lack of guilt rather than the presumption of innocence, and giving central authority through the magistrature virtually absolute powers over the citizens. Local circumstances over the past two centuries have modified its often harsh and arbitrary, if effective, application. But it is far from certain that the Code Napoleon was an improvement upon existing legal systems, complex, fragmented and sometimes iniquitous as they might be.
The much shorter-lived attempt by revolutionary and Napoleonic France to ‘liberate’ other countries from archaic and oppressive feudal rulers was, if this interpretation is correct, almost entirely bogus. Napoleon looted and extorted colossal taxation and tributes from France’s subject systems on a par with the Aztec empire in Mexico. He imposed his own extended clan as rulers of most of his dominions in a fashion that harked back to the Middle Ages; the clan ruled arbitrarily and without check by either constitutional institutions or local traditions.
He dispensed with revolutionary institutions, substituting an empire and monarchy far more showy, absolute and despotic than those of their traditional rulers and creating a phoney new aristocracy which depended upon his favour. He behaved more like an Emperor of China or oriental despot than any kind of progressive political modernizer rooted in enlightenment thinking or political philosophy.
It has been said that he catalysed a ‘bourgeois’ revolution in those countries, advancing the middle class and destroying the feudal aristocracy. In fact he and his clan of flashy nepotistic neo-monarchs promoted their own friends and sympathizers, whether from the old aristocracy – some of whom were happy to collaborate – or the merchant bourgeoisie. But there was no attempt to transform the economies of these countries and seed a new capitalist bourgeoisie of the kind being created for example in Britain. Countries like Italy and Spain remained steeped in agrarian poverty until well into the twentieth century.
He has been credited with stimulating a sense of ‘modern’ ‘nationalist’ sentiment which never existed before, and has even been described as the father of the modern European nation state. Neither revolutionary France nor Napoleon ever intended anything of the kind: invasion, domination, subjugation and the reduction of these countries to tributary status were France’s objectives. Napoleon stamped vigorously on any spark of Prussian nationalism, for example. The emergence of Prussian nationalism had occurred long before 1789, and France was determined to crush it. The emergence of a Prussian-dominated Germany – for good or ill – took place decades later.
In Italy, the widespread admiration for Napoleon which emerged towards the middle of the nineteenth century was merely an expression of hostility to autocratic Austrian domination reimposed, along with Papal domination of the centre and the Bourbon state in the south, after 1815. Its unification was neither advanced nor held up during the Napoleonic period: it was merely frozen for a quarter of a century.
In Austria, the revolutionary and Napoleonic interregnum had virtually no impact on the hold of the Habsburgs upon their far-flung, mostly peasant empire: nor until the 1914–18 war did this change. In Spain, Napoleon’s defeat was followed by the imposition of the most repressive, reactionary monarchy the country had endured for half a century, that of Ferdinand VII. True, his exactions provoked an angry struggle with liberals; but the latter had been emerging before the Napoleonic intervention and might indeed have taken power gradually and constitutionally had the ravages of Napoleonic rule never occurred.
Russia, of course, was not affected at all by revolutionary and Napoleonic ‘progress’ for more than a century, its Romanov dynasty becoming largely entrenched in resistance to change during the Napoleonic wars. In Britain, it is possible to ascribe the coming to power of a deeply conservative clique under Lord Liverpool, Castlereagh and the Wellesleys to a reaction against Napoleon (although there were other reasons too). The wars virtually squeezed out the moderate centre represented by Pitt, Grenville and Canning.
In 1816 Europe in fact was far less ‘progressive’, ‘middle-class’, ‘democratic’, ‘nationalist’, ‘anti-feudal’ and even democratically evolved than in 1788. The revolutionary Napoleonic period had set the clock back, not forward, except in one crucial respect: the expansion of the role of the central state, fuelled by the military imperative – in Napoleon’s case to conquer, in other cases to resist him – a legacy that was to last well into the twentieth century and which in many respects is continuing.
In other important ways, Europe had regressed: its peoples had been decimated by wars which reduced Europe’s population by anything up to a tenth, left few regions untouched, conscripted enormous quantities of cannon fodder, wrecked farmland, trade and commerce and left barely a family unaffected by the first modern, total war, scything through not just particular regions, elites and armies but entire populations.
The second issue that must be addressed is that of the ‘Napoleonic myth’. To what extent is it believable that Napoleon himself was the instigator of the Napoleonic wars, or was the phenomenon altogether more complex? Most historians have of course taken this myth for granted, supported not just by much – certainly not all – of French historiography and Napoleon’s own self-serving account, but by the opprobrium and denigration heaped upon him by his detractors.
Yet if the concept of one-man rule in a small state as far back as the Middle Ages has to be heavily qualified, it seems absurdly far-fetched in the case of a colossal machine such as that over which Napoleon presided. He was certainly one of the greatest autocrats in history, as the undisputed leader of perhaps the most authoritarian military machine presiding over the biggest empire in history, spanning the most prosperous continent in the world.
But he was also a child of his own age and circumstances – in particular French history and the French Revolution – and the nature of his power, and indeed personality, evolved over time. Napoleon emerged from the turmoil of the Revolution to pursue specifically French national objectives, of a kind that had existed for centuries under the Bourbons, with a newly mobilized population and army at his disposal.
It was Dumouriez, the French revolutionary general who ended up becoming a counter-revolutionary, who first won the string of victories that prevented revolutionary France being invaded. It was under Robespierre and the Jacobins that mass mobilization and totalitarian terror were instituted – under penalty of death. This in turn created the first great conscript army of Europe to face the old-style aristocratic volunteer forces or peasant levies and feudal armies of the rest of Europe. It was Carnot who really created the levé en masse and the huge military machine that was to terrorize Europe at a time when Napoleon was just a rising junior officer. Carnot presided over France’s revolution in military tactics, including the division of armies into semi-autonomous corps with great flexibility and freedom of action; the idea of striking in columns at the centre of traditional lines; the importance of flanking attacks or attacks on the ‘derrière’ – always a French obsession. Carnot too was responsible for the promotion of esprit de corps and the army as a privileged, well-paid, self-contained caste separate and above the mass of the people from which they were recruited (as opposed to the downtrodden militia of feudal rulers); and the virtual liberation of those military castes from normal conceptions of law and civilized behaviour to live off the land and plunder and rape as they pleased.
Most of these ideas had been pushed by reformers in the French army in the half-century prior to the Revolution, and some of them had been pinched from the Prussian ruler Frederick the Great’s military innovations. Napoleon was not original in these ideas; but he was picked and promoted by his superiors, including Carnot and the Directory’s Barras, because he was enormously energetic, pragmatic and skilful in their execution. When he finally staged his coup d’état in 1801, it was because a consensus had developed that a strong leader was necessary to end the corruption and near paralysis of the Directory and to prosecute France’s wars.
However, dynamic though he was, Napoleon at that stage was anything but omnipotent: he had been promoted by conservative financial interests to abort further revolutionary agitation and to avoid a Bourbon restoration. He enjoyed support from the peasantry and depended on continuing military success. Above all he was the choice of a group of senior generals, and what the army had proposed, it could also dispose of. After becoming Emperor in 1804, whether as a personal vanity, in resignation to the anxiety of his supporters about a Bourbon restoration or as a simple reminder to its lingering and aspiring followers that the Revolution was over, he still depended on the loyalty of his generals and a coalition of civilian interests to stay in power.
His hand was immensely strengthened by the string of crushing military successes from 1805 to 1807 against Austria and Prussia which also boxed in Russia; and it was at this stage that his hubris really seemed to get the better of him. He no longer felt he had to kowtow to domestic supporters and he believed that he was militarily invincible. But his legitimacy derived not from his ludicrous coronation robes or laurel crowns or Roman emperor-style statues but from the fact that he had restored stability and leadership to France and delivered handsome victories and plentiful spoils – which were now a substitute for nonexistent economic development. Realistically and shrewdly he had to call off his projected invasion of Britain, while less realistically he hoped that he could strangle France’s oldest and most powerful foe economically.
In examining Napoleon’s pronouncements, it is always necessary to disentangle bombastic rhetoric designed to inflame his followers, which fuelled ideas that he was simply a megalomaniac, from the realism underneath, which sometimes evidently became confused in his own mind, particularly in the later years. He then made the colossal and hubristic blunder of invading Spain, which posed no threat to France and which he regarded as a province to be annexed with little resistance. Ostensibly this was part of his anti-British strategy, in fact it was merely to add to the empire. Within a short time he understood the scale of his mistake – as his refusal to command the troops after the first campaigns showed – but he could not admit his errors in public, and the war continued as a vast, futile haemorrhage of French armies and men.
At that point Napoleon seemed to abandon his hubristic phase, and grew into – or in the modern phrase reinvented himself as – a peaceful statesman determined to maintain French domination of Europe, but seeking alliances, as through his marriage with Marie Louise of Austria, and engaging in no further territorial land grabs, other than occasionally bullying small states. The Spanish quagmire had, in a sense, tamed him. If Europe had been prepared to settle down to a period of French domination, Napoleon might perhaps have died peacefully on his throne as the founder of a new, long-lasting French dynasty.
But the resistance in the Iberian Peninsula, abetted by the British expeditionary force, became increasingly lethal and widespread; and Europe had not been prepared to accept peace on French terms. Napoleon’s own penchant for blustering to secure his ends had been more effective when countries were recoiling from his military successes than when he was exposed to be a merely mortal, if outstanding, military commander. At that stage diplomacy was required.
Finally Napoleon’s erstwhile but unreliable ally, the Tsar of Russia, himself effectively declared war on France. This initiated the third phase of Napoleon’s rule: from peaceful despotism he was forced to resort again to war, this time under pressure from a hostile foreign power. The Russian campaign has been presented as aggressive and madcap and initiated by Napoleon; but it was in fact a hugely mishandled defensive campaign. Only in his wilder moments did he declare he would conquer the whole country or use it as a gateway to the east. He blundered forward in the hope of inflicting a single huge defeat on the Russians and preventing them ever threatening his eastern dominions. After the retreat from Moscow he could still have preserved his empire. But his inept diplomacy and his enemies’ sense of his vulnerability ultimately led to the disaster of Leipzig which brought about his downfall.
Thus the revolutionary wars and the career of Napoleon can be divided into four entirely distinct phases – those of revolutionary change and French aggrandisement from 1792 to 1801, those of French imperialism from about 1803 to 1808, those of imperial consolidation from 1808 to 1812, and those of self-defence and eventual collapse from 1812–1814.
Within France he was secure, so long as he continued to deliver military successes, until about 1808. Then he began to lose support among the key elites personified by Talleyrand. He remained in power because thenceforth he modified his image as an aggressor to become a constitutional monarch at peace with his neighbours, although an overwhelmingly preponderant one. When faced by Russian obduracy, he abandoned his new image in favour of a gamble, which cost him much of his domestic constituency and eventually led to his overthrow.
Yet to survive domestically he felt he had to re-establish himself as a military genius. This led to the disastrous Leipzig campaign, which went well at first and collapsed when he over-extended himself: Napoleon as a commander, although gifted, never realized his own limitations. From then on he was doomed, defeated by Wellington in the south-west and the allied armies in the east. His domestic base crumbled until he was left only with the support of his military chiefs, who also finally deserted him. In all this he can be seen not to be a megalomaniac or a genius, but a leader reflecting domestic imperatives who only occasionally allowed his manic self-confidence to overcome his sense of realism. For the most part, it was revolutionary and expansionary France which guided Napoleon’s policies, not he who guided them.
This judgement, obviously, qualifies any judgement about his greatness or wickedness. If this book’s thesis is correct, he emerges as a much more human and limited figure than the superman painted by his supporters, or the globe-conquering megalomaniac portrayed by his detractors. As a national leader, he was a superb protagonist of French national interests who went too far, retrenched, was attacked and blundered to his doom: the responsibility for the horrors inflicted upon Europe during the period belonged to pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary France, of which he was but the helmsman, sometimes inspired in his steering, sometimes disastrously inept.
As for his political skills – on which he prided himself – they were virtually non-existent: he seized power in a brutal military coup, his treatment of allies and enemies alike was that of the martinet throughout the ages – gruff patronage towards his supporters and furious anger towards his enemies. As a diplomat, on which he also prided himself, he was a figure of fun: he was seduced by Alexander at Tilsit, duped by Francis II through an imperial marriage, and completely outwitted by both Talleyrand and Metternich.
As a thinker, his philosophy was that of the highly intelligent man of action that he was, but bereft of true insight. His musings on St Helena were typical.
Man loves the supernatural. He meets deception halfway. The fact is that everything about us is a miracle. Strictly speaking, there are no phenomena, for in nature everything is a phenomenon: my existence is a phenomenon; this log that is being put into the chimney is a phenomenon; this light that illuminates me is a phenomenon; my intelligence, my faculties, are phenomena; for they all exist, yet we cannot define them. I leave you here, and I am in Paris, entering the Opera; I bow to the spectators, I hear the acclamations, I see the actors, I hear the music. Now if I can span the space from St Helena, why not that of the centuries? Why should I not see the future like the past? Would the one be more extraordinary, more marvellous than the other? No, but in fact it is not so.
He was an obsessive egotist. He could even be amusing:
When I was at Tilsit with the Emperor Alexander and the King of Prussia, I was the most ignorant of the three in military affairs! These two sovereigns, especially the King of Prussia, were completely au fait as to the number of buttons there ought to be in front of a jacket, how many behind, and the manner in which the skirts ought to be cut. Not a tailor in the army knew better than King Frederick how many measures of cloth it took to make a jacket. In fact, I was nobody in comparison with them. They continually tormented me with questions about matters belonging to tailors, of which I was entirely ignorant, though, in order not to affront them, I answered just as gravely as if the fate of an army depended upon the cut of a jacket. The King of Prussia changed his fashion every day. He was a tall, dry looking fellow, and would give a good idea of Don Quixote. At Jena, his army performed the finest and most showy manoeuvres possible, but I soon put a stop to their coglionerie, and taught them that to fight and to execute dazzling manoeuvres and wear splendid uniforms were very different affairs. If the French army had been commanded by a tailor, the King of Prussia would certainly have gained the day, from his superior knowledge in that art!
As a human being he was kind, perhaps excessively so, towards his family and friends; he was temperamental but not vindictive towards his subordinates and enemies. Yet he showed a professional soldier’s utter indifference to the suffering of lesser people – whether his own soldiers, the enemy or civilians – as to inflict suffering across Europe on a superhuman scale that appeared not to bother him at all.
As a soldier, the criterion by which he really wanted to be judged, he was a superb professional, perhaps the greatest leader of small armies in history, brilliant at outwitting and outflanking his opponents, inspiring his soldiers, and rewarding them amply, making them capable of almost incredible marches, endurance and feats: his early Italian campaigns and his last-ditch campaign in defence of France in 1814 are rightly military classics. His record in larger battles is more mixed, and to a great extent depended on the abilities of his subordinates as well as his capacity for improvisation, surprise, and the flexible management of army corps – his brilliance during the 1805–7 campaigns was not recaptured during 1807–9 and, 1812–15, apart from the defensive French campaign.
As an inspirer of his men he was perhaps without parallel, remembering the lowliest subordinate’s name, regaling them with the most ringing before-battle bombast in military history, fearlessly risking his life in his youth and always understanding the importance of esprit de corps, morale boosting and regimental pride. He was a superb opportunist and improviser. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest soldiers in history.
He was also a born propagandist and his ability to tell every story so that it resounded to his credit has rarely been exceeded – hence the Napoleonic myth, fashioned ultimately in the forge of St Helena’s steely climate: for Napoleon’s final victory was not achieved in war, but in exile, where several years’ outpouring of self-justification formed the basis for a Napoleonic legend that has survived to this day. Add to this his extraordinary capacity for dreaming, for articulating great visions which has inspired reformers and monsters alike in later years, and he was certainly what he would call a ‘phenomenon’, although a more limited one than he would have liked to believe.
In essence he was a military dictator, a superb general, and a conqueror utterly unprincipled and ruthless in the pursuit of his own self-promotion, subordinating France to his own glory even though his country and the French people sacrificed themselves in the hundreds of thousands in his cause – and then, after much suffering, destroyed it. He was a military genius, a political and diplomatic third-rater, and a monster.
How then, in retrospect, should Britain have responded to the challenge posed by revolutionary France and, later, Napoleon? As this book has tried to recount, the early period, that of revolutionary war, was met with by much wishful thinking, indecision and appeasement by William Pitt’s government, which sincerely did not want to go to war. The military outcome of the early British expeditions were catastrophic, as was too their failure to support the resistance in France. The West Indies’ campaign was militarily successful only at a huge cost in life.
As the war progressed, Pitt, his foreign secretary Grenville and William Windham, his war secretary and chief spymaster, became more resolute and pursued a skilful policy of building continental coalitions against Napoleon, supported by colossal amounts of British money, coupled with a dazzling naval campaign which has never been exceeded in history. All the time, however, both Pitt and Grenville preached peace and reconciliation.
When Napoleon came to power both men decided to continue the war, Pitt eventually dying of nervous exhaustion and Grenville acting only briefly as his successor. Foreign policy devolved, after a brief interlude dominated by the mercurial George Canning, to the unlovely triumvirate of the brilliant but cold Lord Castlereagh, the mediocre figurehead Lord Liverpool and Richard Wellesley and his brothers. Ironically, this was one moment when peace might have been possible, albeit with the continent under French domination and Napoleon content to rest upon his laurels. Instead, probably rightly, the British prosecuted the Peninsular War and sought to bribe and persuade their continental allies into re-entering the fight. They succeeded in both. By this time the British army had been transformed from being brave but inefficient under incompetent commanders to being brave, effective and well-officered. When war broke out on the continent again, Britain’s confrontational policy was implacably pursued and ended in a total victory, first in 1814 and then in 1815, with the charmless Castlereagh pursuing a carefully structured settlement for Europe.
Pitt and Grenville can be faulted for rising to the French challenge too slowly, then complimented for pursuing it vigorously. Castlereagh and Liverpool can be faulted for ignoring the possibility of peace with France, and instead seeking war regardless. While many mistakes were made by both administrations, it is hard to fault Britain’s implacable commitment to the war in the belief that the war party under Napoleon would learn nothing except from defeat.
With the bumbling Louis XVIII’s restoration, France was neutralized for decades as a political or military power: Britain could be said to have attained its objective. For Britain the Napoleonic war was a thrice-just war – Britain had to take arms against the disruption caused to British commerce, the slaughter wrought throughout the continent, and the threat to British interests not just in the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Low Countries, but around the world.
Who, in the end, defeated Napoleon? All the coalition members at one time or another now claim to have been the principals. Dogged Austria deserves a large share of the credit for rising from defeat again and again. Prussia, after its lamentable initial performance, renewed some of its national pride at the end. Russia can claim credit for the 1812 campaign, in which although there was no great feat of Russian arms, the French were completely routed.
Yet the lion’s share must surely go to Britain, with Pitt and Grenville’s policies of coalition-building on the continent, the astounding feats of Britain’s navy under Nelson and a host of other outstanding commanders, and Wellington’s relentless performance during the Peninsular War. It was the failure of France to invade or strangle Britain economically that first frustrated revolutionary and Napoleonic France when continental Europe lay prostrate at its feet: and it was the Peninsular War that first exposed France’s weakness and tied down huge French armies, encouraging first Russia and then Austria and Prussia back into the war. Waterloo was, for all its fame, essentially a postscript, the coup de grâce for an indomitable fighter who had failed to accept his own demise the year before. Nor was it a brilliantly fought battle, although Wellington prevailed: Wellington’s true greatness lay in the Peninsular campaign and the resistance of his Spanish and Portuguese allies which brought down a continental giant by the feet. It was through men like him, Moore and Hill in the British army and Howe, St Vincent, Duncan, Nelson, Cochrane and Collingwood in the navy that Britain achieved its deliverance and continental Europe its independence.